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King James

Two Cleveland Cavaliers fans bond over basketball, particularly their love-hate relationship with superstar LeBron James.

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Chris Perfetti and Glenn Davis in a scene from Rajiv Joseph’s “King James” at New York City Center Stage I (Photo credit: Craig Schwartz)

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief

Some friendships develop from one shared connection: a hobby, a class, a sport, living nearby. Rajiv Joseph’s King James brings two Cleveland Cavaliers fans together over basketball, particularly their love-hate relationship with King James, i.e. superstar LeBron James. Joseph has written about such friendships before in The North Pool and Guards at the Taj, but here we follow the two men over a period of 12 years from the time that James joins the Cavs in 2004 to when he leads the team to their first championship in 52 years in 2016.

The lives of the two men parallel the vicissitudes of LeBron James’ career as well as the ups and downs of their own, a direct career path for one, a rocky one for the other who is a dreamer and lives for illusions. Starting in 2004, Matt who is white (Chris Perfetti) and Shawn who is black (Glenn Davis) meet when Matt has season tickets to sell for the Cleveland Cavaliers in LeBron James’ rookie year. The tickets which previously belonged to Matt’s father, Matt now wants to make a killing on their resale as he has big debts for dubious investments his parents will not cover. Shawn, however, only has the windfall he made on selling a short story and, of course, as they are two season passes he needs someone to go with him – which he had not considered.

When next we see them six years later, they are now close friends. The news that LeBron James is leaving Cleveland for the Miami Heat makes Shawn feel betrayed while Matt takes it in stride. However, when he tells Matt that he is leaving for graduate school in New York for television writing, Matt feels like he is losing a friend. Four years later, Shawn has graduated and is back in Cleveland awaiting a meeting in Los Angeles to write for a television show.

Glenn Davis and Chris Perfetti in a scene from Rajiv Joseph’s “King James” at New York City Center Stage I (Photo credit: Craig Schwartz)

Now Matt is flush from a new investment and is paying for his trip, while Shawn is helping out in Matt’s parents’ antique store. However, when the announcement is made that James is returning to Cleveland, Shawn is thrilled but Matt feels that James doesn’t have the right to return. Racism bares its ugly head when Matt says that in return James does not “know his place.” We wonder if their friendship will survive.

The final scene takes place in 2016 during the victory parade for James’ championship win for the Cavaliers. Working in his parents’ store due to his latest investment folding, Matt is surprised by a visit from the successful Shawn, now a writer on a hit television comedy. Shawn has driven from California to share memories of the winning game and to take him to the parade, but Matt now says he is off basketball forever and did not even watch the game. Can their friendship survive? The play is a clever recounting of a long-term friendship fueled by a shared interest. However, it does not feel greater than the sum of its parts but it remains engrossing throughout its decades-long journey.

Kenny Leon, long associated with classy and starry revivals of such modern masterpieces as Ohio State Murders, Topdog/Underdog, A Soldier’s Play, A Raisin in the Sun and Fences, here switches gears and pilots stage and television stars Glenn Davis and Chris Perfetti through the engrossing ups and downs of this unlikely friendship in this new play. Davis and Perfetti have played their roles in both the Chicago and Los Angeles productions and have tremendous rapport together.

Glenn Davis and Chris Perfetti in a scene from Rajiv Joseph’s “King James” at New York City Center Stage I (Photo credit: Craig Schwartz)

They have impressive credits: Davis has appeared in the Steppenwolf Theatre Company production of Bruce Norris’ Downstate which has just won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play and the Outer Critics Award for Outstanding New Off Broadway Play of the season as well as the Broadway production of Joseph’s Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo; Perfetti, who is currently one of the stars of the Emmy Award winning ABC comedy Abbott Elementary, has also been seen in New York in the Broadway revivals of Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation and Inge’s Picnic.

Davis and Perfetti make a fine team, approaching their roles differently. Davis’ Shawn, a man who is goal directed, is quite endearing, putting up with Matt’s rants and bad choices. As Matt, Perfetti plays a man who allows the ups and downs of his fortunes to color his vision. He makes a disagreeable, cantankerous and peevish character fascinating. We may not like him but we are engaged by his poor decisions and self-involved behavior. Khloe Janel is a completely underused as a DJ who plays music pre-show and during the intermission but in no ways adds to the stadium atmosphere of the play.

Leon’s direction is smooth and realistic as the two men meet over the 12 years in the play’s two locations. Todd Rosenthal’s sets are a wonder, the first one a completely stocked bar; the second, a jam-packed antique store, complete with collections as well as novelty items. Samantha C. Jones’ costumes do not show the passage of time but do reflect the men’s changing fortunes.

Glenn Davis and Chris Perfetti in a scene from Rajiv Joseph’s “King James” at New York City Center Stage I (Photo credit: Craig Schwartz)

Whether you are a basketball fan or not, Rajiv Joseph’s King James is an intriguing depiction of an unlikely friendship over 12 years. Under Kenny Leon’s polished direction, Glenn Davis and Chris Perfetti hold the stage with their complicated relationship and representation of male friendship. Although the play doesn’t tackle new ground, it remains absorbing as time passes and the men’s careers take different paths.

King James (through June 18, 2023)

The Steppenwolf Theatre Company and Center Theatre Group Production

Manhattan Theatre Club at New York City Center Stage I, 131 W. 55th Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, call 212-399-3050 or visit http://www.manhattantheatreclub.com

Running time: two hours and 15 minutes including one intermission

Share your thoughts in the comment section below.

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief
About Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief (969 Articles)
Victor Gluck was a drama critic and arts journalist with Back Stage from 1980 – 2006. He started reviewing for TheaterScene.net in 2006, where he was also Associate Editor from 2011-2013, and has been Editor-in-Chief since 2014. He is a voting member of The Drama Desk, the Outer Critics Circle, the American Theatre Critics Association, and the Dramatists Guild of America. His plays have been performed at the Quaigh Theatre, Ryan Repertory Company, St. Clements Church, Nuyorican Poets Café and The Gene Frankel Playwrights/Directors Lab.

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